Maine Maritime Academy students walk by the ABS Center for Engineering, Science, and Research in this undated photo. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Maritime Academy

Amid rising college tuition costs and growing student loan debt, Georgetown University Professor Anthony Carnevale keeps hearing the question: Is college worth it?

He decided to answer it, and go deeper. In a new report released this week, he not only found that college is generally worth it. But he also ranked more than 4,500 colleges and universities across the country to determine which ones are most worth the time and money.

The report from Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, which Carnevale directs, shows the return on investment from a college degree or professional certificate throughout a person’s career — at 10, 15, 20, 30 and 40 years after graduation.

The surprising takeaway in Maine was that Maine Maritime Academy posted the sixth highest return on investment out of 4,529 institutions, topping even elite schools such as Harvard (No. 8) and Georgetown (No. 9). The net present value of a Maine Maritime Academy education 40 years after graduation was $2.04 million, compared with Harvard’s $1.97 million.

That figure, net present value, takes into account the cost of attending each institution and graduates’ earnings, drawn from federal databases. Overall, the Georgetown report found that degrees from four-year, private, nonprofit institutions had the greatest return on investment in the long term.

Maine Maritime is an outlier on the top 10 list for more than one reason: It’s the only higher-education institution from Maine, and one of only two public institutions among the top 10.

But does this mean it’s better than Harvard? The answer is: It depends.

For students who know they want to be engineers and work on boats, probably so, Carnevale said. Maine Maritime offers a limited range of educational programs compared with Harvard. Those programs are mostly in engineering or related fields, which lead to high-paying occupations.

“If you know you want to go to sea and be an engineer, go to Maine Maritime Academy,” Carnevale said. “You will take literature. You will learn a foreign language. It is a bona fide four-year institution. But you’re going to end up going out to sea, and you’ll make a lot of money.”

However, most students don’t know what they want to do in college, Carnevale said. In that case, it’s better to choose an institution that offers a higher return on investment and plentiful options for programs of study.

“So, if you have perfect test scores and all the money in the world, and you don’t know what you want to do, go to Harvard,” he said.

In the report, colleges and universities are classified based on the kind of degrees they primarily award: certificates, two-year associate’s degrees or four-year bachelor’s degrees. If an institution awards more than one kind of degree, it is classified under the kind of degree it awards most commonly.

“The difference between 10 and 40 [years] is of consequence,” Carnevale said. “Ten years out a certificate may well outperform a four-year degree. Later on, a four-year degree, on an average, tends to catch up.”

The report can be a tool for students to look at to understand what their options are, but it only presents institution-level information on return on investment without explaining why the rankings are what they are, said Carnevale, who cautioned students need guidance from a college counselor to make best use of the information.

“If you’re a student who’s 16 years old, and you’re looking out to the future and what you’re going to do after high school, this is worth a glance,” he said. “The question that’s raised by every one of these [rankings] is, ‘why?’ The data raises more questions than it answers.”

Another advantage for those large, prestigious private universities is those institutions’ higher graduation rates. Harvard, MIT and Stanford, which are all in the top 10 for return on investment, have graduation rates of more than 90 percent — much higher than most public universities, Carnevale said.

“The people who don’t graduate don’t tend to make as much as those who do,” he said.

A major limitation of the Georgetown report is that it doesn’t factor in the returns on investment based on different college majors, Carnevale said. It doesn’t answer, for instance, whether a high school senior interested in theater would be better off majoring in theater at Colby College in Waterville (No. 182 out of 4,529) or at a school that specializes in theater.

“The institution’s important because the institutions decide what it costs, and the institutions are better and worse at graduating students,” he said. “But there is more variation by program than there is variation by institution.”

Carnevale said a new report on program-specific returns on investment will be released in the next few weeks.

As for the theater question, “I’m guessing the answer will be it’s better to major in theater at Colby, because if you go to Colby and get a four-year degree, it’ll have value even though you don’t work as an actor,” said Carnevale, a Colby alumnus. “If you go to theater school and don’t become an actor, you’re probably not going to make much money.”